BREATHING SPACE

What to do now to sleep better tonight

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Brigid Moss relies on camomile tea, massages and eye masks to get a good night’s sleep, but is she wasting her time? According to sleep scientist Neil Stanley, it’s what you do during the day that makes a difference

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By Brigid Moss on

If you’re bad at sleeping, you've probably tried a heap of things to get better at it. I am a chronically light sleeper – last night, I was woken up by what I realised was my own bed creaking as I moved.

After trying and testing scores of sleep aids during my years as a health journalist, my current pre-bed must-haves include: camomile tea (containing the flower buds), giving myself a foot massage, wax ear plugs and blackout curtains backed up by a silk eye mask. This current nightly line-up has been whittled down from a variety of soundtracks, light machines, sleep apps and all varieties of essential oils, pillows sprays and pills.    

So, it was fascinating to speak to Neil Stanley, who’s been researching sleep for 36 years and who takes a scientific and common-sense approach – one that’s probably been lacking in my search for sleep nirvana. “Most of the sleep advice has been around for 150 years and gets endlessly repeated,” he says. Apparently, all effective pre-bed advice fits in three simple categories: does it make your bedroom conducive to sleep (not too hot, not too light)? Does it give you a relaxed body? Does it quieten your mind? “What works for one person won’t work for another. I like reading before bed, but that doesn’t mean it gives you a quiet mind.”

Stanley told me that what you do during the day is almost as important as your night-time routine. So, if you’re as paranoid as me about getting sleep, this is what to do today:

This afternoon... nap carefully   

If you are feeling sleepy this afternoon, a 20-minute nap is fine, says Stanley. But two hours in front of the TV tonight is not so great. If you’re a person who needs eight hours' sleep, you’ll only sleep for six in bed and your body will get out of of rhythm. The body loves being in a rhythm, says Stanley, which means, ideally, going to bed and getting up at the same time every day. There’s an exception for new mums who are woken up all night – “Grab sleep whenever you can to make up the deficiency,” says Stanley. “Don’t drink coffee to stay awake – you need to sleep.”

If you are feeling sleepy this afternoon, a 20-minute nap is fine, says Stanley. But two hours in front of the TV tonight is not so great

This evening... only work the hours you’re paid for

There might be such a thing as a 24-hour society, but we humans cannot keep up, says Stanley. “Somehow, this macho idea has come about that, to show yourself to be dedicated, you will answer your emails any time of the night.” This is not good for sleep, he says. “Work/life balance is something we need to grab hold of again.” The thing is, if you spend both your work and play hours on your phone and laptop, the two merge and then it seems silly not to answer emails as they pop up, too. The only way to stop this insidious practice, he says, is a company-wide policy that you do not contact people before or after their paid hours.

But until that happens, try doing just one relaxing thing, rather than multiple things at once. “Do nothing! Or to just listen to music. Or pick up a book and read.” This, he says, is true relaxation. “You’ve got to have a quiet mind to sleep.”

In his book, Stanley recommends at least 45 minutes off-screen before bedtime, but admits the actual scientific advice is to avoid them for two hours. He’s shortened it as he realises nobody will do that. “There’s lots of advice about avoiding alcohol before bed for better sleep, but one or two drinks won’t do any harm,” says Stanley.

And tomorrow morning… Show your brain and body it’s not night time

Because the body thrives on rhythm, that means no more lie-ins at the weekend. Sorry about that. “Your body starts to wake up around 90 minutes before you wake up,” says Stanley. If you keep changing that time, it stops you getting as much undisturbed and quality sleep as you can. “Getting up at the same time is the most powerful change you can make to your sleep.” And you cannot make up for five days of sleep deprivation at the weekend – although it’s better than not making it up at all.

As early as you can, go outside and move – walking is fine. “As sleep is about brain and body getting back into balance, you’ve got to have done something to make up for.” This is about establishing your rhythm, too. “It’s not the exercise itself that leads to better sleep at night – rather it’s being active and the light that denotes that it is day, while night is dark and quiet and calm.”

How to Sleep Better: The science of sleeping smarter, living better and being productive by Dr Neil Stanley is published by Capstone

@brigid_moss

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